Family Politics as Public Authority

Familial authority and governance in post-Ebola Sierra Leone

Hosted by LSE’s Centre for Public Authority and International Development

Researcher: Dr Jonah Lipton

A better understanding of family political life in post-Ebola Sierra Leone can help foreign and state intervention to support family-based initiatives.

Dr Jonah Lipton


The project will examine family-based public authority in Sierra Leone. In a region marked by a recent and deep-history of instability, economic decline, conflict and crisis, family networks – spanning between rural, urban and diaspora – have long and in transforming ways acted as primary modes of governance and means of re-establishing and maintaining social order.  During the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak and resultant state of emergency, the family was a primary unit of care and material support, yet equally, the crisis demonstrated complex interactions between the everyday workings of the family, the state and humanitarian and NGO actors; revealing both the ‘public’ character of the family, and the ‘private’ and intimate reach of the state and global actors.

Yet the arena of family-based governance remains widely misunderstood, particularly in its contemporary form. It is often written off as ‘corrupt’, ‘patrimonial’, or ‘customary’, examined in bounded village ethnographies (albeit with nuance and insight), or simply underrepresented in scholarship due to methodological limitations.  However, in practice the workings of family authority in Sierra Leone often entail overtly democratic principles (exemplified in formal ‘family meetings’), and women, particularly elders, often hold positions of authority and influence.

Equally, family modes of governance are adaptable and dynamic, often due to the fluidity in movement of individuals between connected homes in rural and urban locations, which challenge dominant perceptions of sharp rural-urban divides in African forms of governance. The research centrally aims to uncover the workings of family political life in the post-Ebola context, with an eye on ways foreign and state intervention might better interact, rather than undermine, family-based initiatives.

Read more: methodology

The central research methodology is in-depth ethnographic fieldwork, conducted over two 4-month periods of fieldwork, which includes an intermediate period for writing-up and assessing initial findings and designing the second phase. The research will take as a starting point households that the researcher became embedded in during PhD research in an urban neighbourhood of Freetown, as well as the family networks of a Sierra Leonean research assistant.

During fieldwork, the reach of family networks ‘out’ will be charted beyond these neighbourhoods, following individuals’ movements and activities in a variety of urban and rural familial locations. Particularly close attention will be paid to family decision-making processes during formal ‘family meetings’, as well as tracing family histories, disputes and resolutions, material flows, practices of care, family-based ‘development’ initiatives, means of incorporation and rejection, and interactions with the state and other forms of public authority. Life-histories and interviews will also be conducted, with female-elders in particular, in order to complement ethnographic data. In some cases, informants/assistants will be asked to keep their own diaries to chart experiences of family authority. Finally, surveys will be conducted to contextualise core-findings.




Jonah Lipton

Dr Jonah Lipton is an anthropologist at LSE where he attained his PhD examining family life, work, and coming of age among young men in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Jonah gained a BA in Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

Research interests: political economy, urban neighbourhood life, crisis and humanitarianism
Region: Sierra Leone

Twitter: @Jonah_Lipton

Photo: Health Worker at Ebola Isolation Ward in Kabala, Sierra Leone. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.